Born into a peasant family in southern Russia, Gorbachev had a difficult childhood, enduring poverty, hard work on his father’s farm and Nazi occupation during World War II. As a boy Gorbachev received a state education and proved an excellent student, winning awards and an opportunity to study law at Moscow University in 1950.
After graduating in 1955, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party and obtained a position in the Soviet bureaucracy. In 1956 he became First Secretary in the city of Stavropol. During the 1960s and 1970s, Gorbachev worked in economic planning, overseeing reforms and improvements to agricultural production. Gorbachev also ascended through the ranks of the Communist Party, joining its Central Committee (1971) and the Politburo (1980).
Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union after the death of Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985. He was chosen for his youth and robust health, his international experience and his ability to improve production and economic outcomes. His maiden speech maintained a commitment to communism but hinted at economic reforms to increase output and improve living standards.
Within three years of becoming leader, Gorbachev had announced two major policy shifts: perestrokia (‘restructuring’) and glasnost (‘openness’). He also improved relations between the USSR and the West, dumping Andrei Gromyko from the foreign ministry and forging new ties with US president Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This gave rise to a 1987 treaty reducing nuclear missile numbers.
Gorbachev’s reforms failed to stem economic problems within the Soviet Union, however, which disintegrated into smaller republics in 1990-91. Outraged communist hardliners attempted to remove Gorbachev in an August 1991 coup, but after two days it was thwarted by political and popular opposition. The coup led to Gorbachev’s resignation from the Communist Party and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by several former Soviet republics.
Gorbachev resigned from the Soviet leadership in December 1999. In retirement he was a commentator on world affairs, recently expressing strong criticisms of Vladimir Putin. He died in August 2022.